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Paying it forward – in food

KILAUEA — Dana Petcu was scrolling through her Facebook feed Wednesday evening when something out of the ordinary caught her eye.

“Anyone in Kilauea not wanting to cook tonight?” she read.

Petcu fit the description. She had just picked up her daughter from the Princeville Public Library and soon both their stomachs would be growling. So she kept reading.

“I’m moving and need to cook everything in my kitchen,” the post continued. “Tonight I’m making chicken pad Thai for anyone in the community for FREE. Comment so I know how much to make!”

The note was posted on the “Kauai Buy and Sell” public group page, which has nearly 15,000 members.

Petcu was instantly overcome with a sweet nostalgia.

“I want some, we love pad Thai!” she typed. “I’ll trade some strawberry popsicles for that! Mahalo!”

In Romania, where Petcu was raised, sharing meals among neighbors, even among strangers, is more or less the norm. As a girl, Petcu’s mother would send her out into the neighborhood armed with plentiful servings of whatever the family had cooked up for dinner that evening.

Petcu was excited. She grabbed a few of her homemade strawberry pops out of the freezer and drove, 7-year-old daughter in tow, to the gym in Kilauea. There in the parking lot she met the 24-year-old chef, a complete stranger, who handed her two generous servings of chicken pad Thai. The meals were neatly packaged in 8-ounce Tupperware containers.

Petcu traded the dinners for an offering of dessert: three juicy popsicles.

The chef was Chane Pham, a small and striking Pennsylvania native who was born into the restaurant business. Pham’s parents own a ramen noodle shop, and her brother recently opened the family’s second location. In two weeks, Pham will board an airplane headed to Pennsylvania, where she hopes to open the third.

Cooking for others, especially Thai cuisine, is Pham’s passion.

“Living in a small studio here, I don’t really get to cook for anyone else,” Pham said.

Pham moved to Kauai in March after falling in love with the island during a visit last December. Apart from the mystical waterfalls and pristine beaches, Pham said the big draw was the sense of community she encountered here.

“I didn’t know anyone here, but it felt like home,” said Pham, who rents an apartment in Kilauea. “Everyone takes care of everyone. Everybody’s aunty or uncle. Everyone treats everyone like family.”

Before she leaves the island, Pham said she plans to cook whatever she can muster from her pantry in order to share it with others. Quite simply, she said she wants to spread a little aloha spirit before she leaves the community that made her feel so welcomed.

Tom yum soup and fried rice, she said, are next on the menu.

“I got to feed three families yesterday,” Pham said. “One lady was so thankful, she paid me in popsicles. Wow, it just shows you how appreciative people are of kindness. I just want to leave an impression before I go.”

The only problem, Pham joked, is that she’s running out of Tupperware.

Kalani Walter, a chiropractor who took home a pad Thai dinner Wednesday night, said he was taken aback by Pham’s kindness.

“She’s an enchanting young girl,” he said. “She’s got the aloha spirit. And the pad Thai was outrageous.”

Petcu said she was so inspired by Pham’s community spirit that she’s going to see to it that the meal sharing continues, even after Pham is gone.

On Thursday, Petcu created a Facebook group called “Pay it forward Kauai Ohana.” She hopes it will become a place where families who want to feed one another can connect.

“I was really, really impressed with what she did,” said Petcu, who lives with her daughter in Princeville. “Like me, I cannot cook for two people. I can never do it. I always have leftovers and we eat the same thing for the next two days. Instead, maybe there are other people who would like a home-cooked meal. I think that could be the start of something big.”

Walter said he thinks so, too. A community meal sharing program, he surmised, could be a big hit, especially among single parents and folks on a tight budget.

“(Pham) may leave a little legacy here on Kauai,” he said.

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